(This is a re-posting of something seen on this page a few weeks ago. After I published this, here, first, I revised this, with the help of reader comments, among others. I wasn't going to re-post it, except a staff member urged me to. This was actually distributed to parishioners the first weekend of September.)
Recently, the legislature and governor of New York changed the definition of marriage, to apply to people of the same sex. In recent years, this has been at issue in several states, and in many state courts—and it may come before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Catholic Church opposes this redefinition of marriage. As a result, we’ve been criticized as against “progress” and even called bigots. Because this is so often cast as a question of “rights,” we may wonder why the Church teaches what she does.
Let me briefly explain what the Church teaches and why it matters.
First, a surprise: our stance is not based on religion; marriage existed before anyone wrote the first words of the Bible. Marriage arises from human nature itself. Human beings are designed to come together and make a family. This is part of being human and obviously necessary. Marriage is important to the well being of us all.
What’s the harm?
Still, many will say, “So what? Why not just change the law to accommodate the wishes of those who don’t fit this mold? What’s the harm in that?”
Here are four areas of concern:
1. This is a power-grab by government. This is a fundamental change in the whole of society being imposed by the government. To a great degree, we all must go along with it. We teach our children to respect the laws. Laws express the common values of society.
The Archbishop of New York asked a question we can all ask: Who gave the government the right to do this? Redefining marriage means redefining family and ultimately what it means to be human. This is social engineering.
2. This strikes at the peace and cohesion of society. A society isn’t just a collection of individuals, but a community with shared values. People often say, “we shouldn’t impose our values.” But there’s no avoiding it; this is what laws do—they reflect shared values and “impose” expectations on all of us.
What’s happening is new values are being imposed on all of us already. Consider…
> In 2004, the supreme court of Massachusetts redefined marriage to include same-sex unions; a 2005 law changed how “family” was viewed by the state. The Catholic Church, long involved in adoptions, was told that if it deemed only a man and a woman as “family,” that would be illegal “discrimination.” The Church stopped referring for adoptions, rather than comply. Something similar has happened in Washington, D.C.
> In California, the state now mandates public schools teach “gay history” beginning in kindergarten. Where is this leading? What will this mean in practice? Will this affect textbooks or other programs made available to Catholic schools?
> In Canada, we might see a glimpse of our future. A Protestant pastor was charged with a “hate crime” in 2002 when he wrote a letter to the editor saying homosexual acts are sinful. After a lengthy court process, and much expense, he was finally cleared. This was not an isolated incident; it happened to the Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Calgary.
3. Marriage and family are not merely private matters—society rests on this foundation as surely as our homes rest on their foundations. Can anyone seriously argue it has been good for our society in recent years to have marriage become fragile, to have children grow up in broken homes, or grow up without both parents married at all?
4. This is reckless tampering. In recent years, we are better appreciating the importance of treating our ecology with respect. It is complex system which we don’t fully understand; but we are realizing better that polluting water and air, and not respecting the climate, wetlands, and endangered species can ultimately threaten our future.
And yet, politicians are re-engineering marriage and family. As Catholic writer Mark Shea observes, “what can it hurt?” will eventually be followed by, “how were we supposed to know?”
This raises a much broader question:
What does our Faith say about same-sex attraction?
We don’t fully know why some people (1-5% from various studies) experience this attraction. For some, it is a phase, for others it’s deep-seated. Some feel an exclusive attraction, but others don’t. Some try to change and do, but not all. Coming to grips with this at a young age can be very difficult. Some never share this, others are open about it.
Sadly, teasing, cruelty and rejection take a terrible toll. Some young people go through awful trials, and make rash decisions with life-long or even fatal consequences. A lot of folks have serious soul-searching to do about attitudes and behavior toward gay people.
The truth is, our family and friends who wrestle with these feelings ask the same questions we all ask: who am I? Why did God make me? How do I fit in his plan?
The answers—for everyone—are: We are made in God’s image. God made us to know, love and serve him in this life, to be happy with him in the next. We spend our lives discovering our particular vocation, but we are all part of his plan.
Did God make me this way?
Many say this same-sex attraction comes from God. But can we really say that?
People have all kinds of sexual feelings or desires. Will we say every one of them is likewise “God given”—simply because people experience them? Throughout history, faithfulness in marriage has always been a challenge; and people have seriously claimed that they can’t help being unfaithful. Is being unfaithful also “God-given”?
Whether we look at what nature tells us about human sexuality, or what Scripture and Christian tradition say, the answer is the same: that human sexuality is meant for a permanent union of a man and woman, with procreation an inseparable part of this union.
This is why our Faith has always taught that sex before and outside of marriage (including by oneself and porn), and marital acts involving contraception or sterilization, or which deliberately exclude procreation, are all gravely sinful.
Do I matter to God?
Maybe what we’re trying to say is something different: that whoever we are, God loves us. We have worth and dignity. That is true!
Nothing in our Faith allows us to demean or devalue anyone, for any reason. If we’ve ever treated anyone that way, that is a sin on our part. When we present our beliefs about the meaning of human sexuality and the call to chastity, this isn’t to be “anti” anyone.
As Christians, we believe two things that apply here: that human beings are broken and wounded, because of Original Sin; and that Christ, who died to save us, gives us grace to become new people. Having same-sex feelings is just one form of brokenness.
Facing our own brokenness, and bringing it to Christ, are essential to our salvation. Many people can say, “why did this happen to me?” Many people face life long struggles and shame. Christ accepts us where he finds us, but loves us too much to leave us there.
The virtue of chastity
Jesus said, “Take up your cross.” Why did he say it? Maybe because he knew there’s no other way to become truly human.
Our culture ridicules chastity. A lot of heterosexual folks, even Christians, do not embrace chastity themselves; so it seems unfair to ask it of those with same-sex desires.
So, a reminder: Christ calls everyone to chastity, not just some.
Married people are called to be chaste in their relations with each other and with others. This, along with the dying to self that comes in marriage and family, is costly.
Some heterosexuals find they can’t make marriage work. They either attempt it and it ends badly; or they never marry. They also find chastity hard.
And our Lord specifically called some to be chaste for his Kingdom—which is what brothers, sisters and priests do.
We might recall the words of G.K. Chesterton: “The Christian ideal hasn’t been tried and found wanting; it’s been found difficult and not tried.” No one can seriously claim our culture is too “pushy” about chastity and self-control. Just the opposite: what we experience from all sides is the celebration of not just lust, but greed, gluttony, materialism and anger.
Is this set of values working for our society? For families? For children?
We need the virtue of chastity so we can truly possess ourselves; in order to truly give ourselves fully to others. A society that scorns self-denial cannot say “no” and sacrifice for the future—which is at the heart of both our nation’s fiscal woes and health problems, is it not?
But chastity isn’t just about what you say “no” to; saying “no” to something that feels good, or really is good, means saying “yes” to a greater good. This is what soldiers do; what faithful spouses and parents do. It is what Jesus Christ did! It’s what each of us is called to do.
What is our Catholic answer?
To those who experience same-sex attraction, you are part of the Body of Christ. You are always welcome. Your priests will readily help with the sacraments and spiritual support. (See below for a link to Courage, a Catholic organization of those with same-sex attraction living their faith.) Every Catholic should be equally ready to provide true friendship and support. I’m here to help: call me to speak confidentially if you wish.
It has never been easy to answer Jesus’ call. In every age, some part of his message has always been rejected because it was too challenging.
When the prophet Habbakuk asked God why society was not listening to God’s words, the Lord said, “Write down the vision…the vision still has its time…wait for it.”
—Father Martin Fox, Pastor, St. Mary & St. Boniface Parishes, August 2011
“Bishop Henry calls for overhaul of human rights commissions,” Catholic Civil Rights League, accessed July 28, 2011, online here; “Bishop Fred Henry's letter to the Premier of Alberta,” Catholic Education Resource Center, 2008, accessed here.
“California to Require Gay History in Schools,” New York Times, July 15, 2011, accessed here.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1602-1605; accessed here; paragraphs 2337-59, accessed here.
“Catholic Charities stuns state, ends adoptions,” Boston Globe, March 11, 2006, accessed online at:
Courage: Catholic Apostolate for those with same-sex here.
“Same-sex ‘marriage’ law forces D.C. Catholic Charities to close adoption program,” Catholic News Agency, February 17, 2010; accessed here.